The elephant in the room is capitalism. Maybe.
Chris Smaje of Vallis Veg and Small Farm Future shares his thoughts as to why the elephant in the room is capitalism. Maybe. It’s over to Chris from here…
Whenever someone writes an online article about virtually any aspect of the environmental challenges facing humanity, you can pretty much guarantee that underneath it somebody is going to write a comment that closely approximates to this:
“The real issue here is human over-population. It’s the elephant in the room that trendy green thinkers don’t want to talk about.” In distant second place you’ll usually find a similar comment about meat eating. And, even less commonly, one about the flying or other carbon-intensive sins of said trendy green thinkers.
These comments doubtless emanate respectively from the childless, the vegan, and the foot-powered, and represent the pharisaical human tendency to elevate whatever behaviours we engage in that we feel are especially praiseworthy to a kind of touchstone status by which we can judge others less virtuous than ourselves. Hovering in the background of such thought is the ever present charge of hypocrisy, as in this recent tweet aimed at George Monbiot’s opposition to fossil fuel extraction: “Hey @GeorgeMonbiot – You PERSONALLY give up all items made or sustained by fossil fuels first, then we’ll talk.”
David Fleming nails this way of thinking especially well when he writes,
“Though my lifestyle may be regrettable, that does not mean that my arguments are wrong; on the contrary, it could mean that I am acutely aware of values that are better than the ones I achieve myself. If I lived an impeccable life, I could be lost in admiration for myself as an ethical ideal; failings may keep me modest and raise my sights.”
But, more importantly, all the obsessive finger-pointing about individual behaviours neglects the systemic logic which provides their ground. This was Marx’s insight in his critique of the utopian socialists – capitalism isn’t an especially nasty system because capitalists are especially nasty people. Therefore, building some nice factories with pleasant managers won’t solve the problem. The problem is that individual people ultimately have little choice but to respond to the behavioural drivers dictated by the logic of the (capitalist) system – and these drivers, investing a million innocent little decisions, have nasty consequences.
That brings me to my main point: when it comes to pesticide use in farming – actually, when it comes to a lot of things – if we want to talk about ‘the elephant in the room’, it isn’t human population. It’s capitalism.
Consider this thought experiment. Suppose that, magically, human population halved overnight. I guess the consequences would depend a bit on exactly who it was that disappeared, but maybe not so much in the end. Imagine, for example, that it was the poorest 50% of the world’s population. The effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be slight, but the effect on the food system in the rich countries would probably be pretty significant. In the short term, there’d be no more cheap labour furnishing all the labour-intensive items that we currently outsource – the fruit and vegetables, the flowers, the prawns, the coffee and so on. But the basic agricultural economics of high labour costs and low fuel costs in the rich countries would remain. Pesticide regimens are basically labour-saving technologies in a situation of low energy costs. I can’t see them changing much in the event of a population cataclysm among the world’s poor. Indeed, with the onus now falling on the rich countries to provide their own labour-intensive food commodities in a high labour cost situation, the impetus would be for further mechanisation and probably an intensification of pesticide-dependent farming in order to keep the fruit and veg flowing.
Now imagine that the disappearances mainly affected the world’s richest. The short-term effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be dramatically positive. Longer-term, though, the cataclysm would further impel the economic trajectory that’s already underway, a shifting centre of economic gravity from the north and west to the south and east. The labour-energy balance in these populous southern/eastern countries would shift further towards present rich country norms, prompting labour flight from agriculture and greater pressures towards mechanisation (and pesticisation). The acute labour shortage in the depopulated rich countries would push in the same direction.
So my feeling is that if pesticide-dependent farming is the problem then, no, the elephant in the room is not the size of the human population – it’s the relative value of human and mechanical labour. Since there’s a more-or-less fixed limit to the productivity of the former, but not so much in case of the latter, then the developmental pressure is always to substitute the latter for the former. But only in situations where capital increase is the fundamental bottom line. Marx again: in a non-capitalist market society, money acts mostly just as a medium of exchange. If you make pots and I grow vegetables, it’s convenient for me to buy your pots and for you to buy my vegetables through the intermediary of money. Vegetables become money become pots, commodities become money become commodities, or C → M → C, in Marx’s terms.
With capitalism, though, money is invested in order to produce a commodity, which is sold for money: M → C → M. But if the value of the first M is the same as the second, there’s not much point going to the trouble of turning the first M into C, only to get the same M back again. The logic of the process is really M → C → M’, where M’ > M. And there in a nutshell is the massive transformative power of capitalism: once you unleash the pure logic of M’ > M, anything that stands in its way will ultimately be crushed. That’s why in the average arable field, you’re only likely to see the occasional farmworker driving a massive spraying rig, and not dozens of thoughtful polycultural agroecologists.
For the purposes of this post, I’m remaining agnostic about the pros and cons of modern pesticide regimens. There are those who like to argue that there’s nothing to worry about – mostly by stressing that pesticide levels fall within the range deemed safe by government bodies and by impugning the credentials or agenda of anyone who says otherwise. Presumably, unless they’re shareholders in agrochemical companies, even these folks would agree that it’s not an active virtue to spray our crops with pesticides. But whatever the rights or wrongs of doing it, the crops are going to stay sprayed so long as we make M’ > M the primary logic impelling our economic system.
Coming back to my thought experiment, barring an unprecedentedly massive genocide or natural disaster, that kind of population decrease clearly isn’t going to happen. For sure, there’s a good case for nudging humanity towards lower numbers by using the various small policy levers available. But human population dynamics are a path-dependent and highly complex system which can’t easily be manipulated by wishing things were different. It’s not an ‘elephant in the room’ that, once identified, is easily resolved.
By that logic, you could say the same of capitalism. I think Marx was definitely onto something with his C → M → Cs and his M → C→ Ms, but it now seems pretty clear that some magic solution to the world’s problems is not going to fall from the sky simply through the overthrow of capitalism. Complex problems require complex solutions. There is no elephant in the room. Or else maybe there are many.
Still, I don’t think the shortage of elephants takes us right back to square one. We’ve learned a couple of useful things along the way here. The first is that humans experience the brute facts of nature through the conditioning grid of our culture. That doesn’t mean there’s some kind of law that human culture always overcomes the challenges of the natural world – often enough it manifestly hasn’t. But human culture always mediates those challenges. Which is why I’m pretty sure that whatever shape the problem of human population might have, it doesn’t resemble an elephant.
The second useful thing is that, however complex our problems are, there may be particular pressure points within our cultural mediation of the world where it’s really worth focusing political attention if we want to change things. I think the hard logic of M’ > M is probably one of them.
Reproduced with kind permission from the original post here on the Small Farm Future blog.
About the author
Chris Smaje runs Vallis Veg, an 18-acre farm in Somerset with woodland, grassland, orchard and cropland for vegetables sold locally, plus educational events, camping and livestock. His blog looks at the political (mostly) but also practical case for small-scale agriculture. He’s also the specialist for our smallholding topic.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1annbeirneanimalwhisperert August 18th, 2019
I would disagree with most of you hypothesis, you cannot allow population to keep increasing it is unsustainable, and I object to vegans being blamed for every biased and cockamainy story reported by the press I am one and I don’t go around blaming meat eaters for all our woes.I do however blame people for flying short distances from Scotland to Britain, for god sake get a train although these are not carbon neutral either no public transport is because no one has bothered to find a cleaner way of doing it, electric cars are not the answer either, they use huge amounts of electricity to recharge them and thus more unsustainable fossil fuels will be used to power our country and others or ever worse nuclear power stations that are not only toxic but even harder to sustain. less cars on the road would be helpful too, Human life is one of the main reasons we are in this mess and if we go on the way we are going we will no longer exist. I would also like to point out that due to our increasing human population would mean there would be no more elephants in reality to be in the ‘room’.
2Steve Gwynne August 18th, 2019
IM=PACT simplifies the task of reducing ecological impacts so that nations of the world are operating within ecological credit.
intersect to create a system of human impacts with each playing their role in terms of planetary overshoot. The question is what contraction mix works best for different nations in order to create a good life within planetary boundaries.
The eco-logic behind M>C>M and M>M clearly breaks down when it is realised that you cannot sustain yourself by eating money or pots. Therefore whatever contraction pathway is imagined, the human race or human groupings will primarily organise in order to satisfy ecological needs, not financial needs.
The creation of money is not a primary need but a secondary need. This highlights the hubris of capitalism as a means of deflecting ecological responsibility away from IM=PACT.
Human population is a primary driver of land use changes from which all other forms of consumption take place.
Land is the elephant in the room.
If every human requires a minimum of 1.6 hectares of land to exist through labour intensive work, whether that land is near or far, then clearly planetary limits exist regarding human population levels. Similarly, the size of national territories embeds national population limits.
Pesticides (technology) enables greater productivity on a set piece of land which potentially reduces the proportion of land dedicated to vegetables. But to create the pesticides requires land elsewhere. Therefore, despite technology and the opportunity to make profits from technology, land use remains the same, with the same planetary limits to human population.
In this respect, IM (human ecological Impact) is in a direct relationship with the amount of land taken up by the human species.
Consumption contraction, including technology, reduces the amount of land required for secondary need activities, activities which generally contribute most to ecological debt and planetary overshoot through the required import dependancies to satisfy an ecologically indebted nation.
The international trade that is required to satisfy import dependancies in order to sustain an ecologically indebted national human population is another example of (foreign) land use change.
Land use change is the primary driver of climatic, environmental and ecological disruptions.
The task ahead is to reduce land use through a mix of PACT contraction with ecological debt being a significant reference point from which nations, globally, can reduce overall Human Impact.
Population. Reduce the birth rate and justly withhold life saving technologies.
Affluence. Determine safe levels of national income from which to consume in relation to national population levels. Some price fixing will be required as well as rational debate and democratic consensus
Consumption. Land use needs to be assessed regarding climatic, environmental and ecological disruptions and ecological (not capital) efficiencies maximised. This will require a particular focus on international trade and import dependancies in relation to national population overshoot.
Technology. Capital intensity and labour intensity needs to be assessed and rationalised into low, medium and high impacts to help rebalance consumption expectations through the development of an ecological responsibility consciousness.
To achieve PACT contraction at the supranational (USA, EU, China, India, Brazil etc) or global level requires highly centralised technocratic institutions which can overcome the difficulties associated with highly complex modelling, bridging difficulties between the centre and the periphery and difficulties in allocating national fair shares in order to reduce overall land use and ecological debts.
The alternative is a global system of national sufficiency ecologies in which national populations reduce import dependancies in cooperation with other nations in order to rebalance IM=PACT both nationally and globally so that the human species exists within the safe operating space of the planet.
3Dave Darby August 18th, 2019
I think that most people are good, in that they’re not selfish or dishonest, and would prefer to leave the world a better place. But capitalism provides a greasy pole that selfishness or lack of integrity make it easier, not more difficult, to climb. Therefore, the kinds of people that achieve power (real, money power, rather than pretend, political power) don’t tend to be the best among us.
This is why Jordan Peterson, for example, is wrong about ‘hierarchies of competence’. Capitalism doesn’t produce hierarchies of competence, unless by competence, you mean ruthlessness, greed for power (not for material possessions) and a mind that’s calculating enough to get you up that pole. Those are not the kinds of competencies that should be celebrated, imho. He who pays the piper calls the tune. All you need to call the tune is money, not competence. You can buy managerial talent to make sure your wealth increases. But ultimately, it’s money that controls the think-tanks, political donations, lobby industry, media, jobs for politicians etc.
Capitalism rewards sociopathy, and so people often think that the sociopathic proportion of the population is larger than it actually is. Remove the sociopaths from equation, and as long as we have the M-C-M’ economic model, another bunch of sociopaths will replace them. With a C-M-C model, there’s far less scope for exploitation and parasitical behaviour. Do something useful or don’t expect any reward.
The advantage of this kind of approach is that it’s something we can start to organise ourselves, in our communities, without having to ask the state to do it for us (a hopeless mission, imho). It’s happening, it’s marginal, but it’s our only hope. Population growth is falling in every country in the world, so it’s difficult to know what more we can realistically do in that respect, that we’re not doing already – i.e. having fewer kids. Population is set to stabilise later this century, then start to fall. But as the article says, a M-C-M’ economy will continue to eat into nature regardless of the population.
4Eloise Sentito August 18th, 2019
Great piece Chris, I’ll be following your blog.
I think we’re missing another elephant…
As I understand it, there’s a gaping hole in Marx’s work because he didn’t address the debt money analysis (perhaps because the knowledge wasn’t in the public domain, as well as the dynamic I’m about to explain being less intense in his time).
Money creation as debt at interest (now calculated to account for around 97% of all money) creates a mathematical compulsion for extraction of surplus even where bosses are ‘nice’. This ‘profit imperative’ is the driver of infinite growth and the locking mechanism of capitalism which leaves industrialised societies trashing communities and habitats in relentless pursuit of a commodity (money) that is by design — in this currrent debt-based system — more scarce than food would otherwise be. It works as follows:
Corporate banks create money from nothing as debt at interest. According to https://tradingeconomics.com/united-kingdom/bank-lending-rate, interest rates averaged around 8% in the UK between the Second World War and the 2008 crash (this rate is similar worldwide). This means that, in aggregate, 8p must be extracted from every £1 of labour in order to cover aggregate rent of credit. (Rent of property and equipment accounts for a much less significant percentage, though is still an unhelpful part of the equation that results from the land/asset inequality that’s sharpened by the debt-based monetary system.) This extraction of surplus means that prices will always be higher (in aggregate) than wages, and so wages will never suffice, and costs must be cut in order to lower prices so that goods and services are sold, and when costs are cut, wages (and environment) must suffer, and then prices cannot be afforded, and so more costs must be cut, and then wages are cut… and so on: the race to the bottom is intrinsic to our current monetary system, which compels the extractive economics that is capitalism. It’s a trickle-up system bleeding the real economy (and the planet) dry.
Steve, even in our current economics 1.6 hectares of land, even marginal land, can support not just one person but a family. I’ve just read my friend Larch Maxey’s 2010 report for the Ecological Land Co-op in which DEFRA figures show that tiny-scale, labour-intensive smallholdings are more productive (and more profitable) per unit of land area than conventional large-scale agriculture.
This planet can support (and even benefit from, since every species is naturally part of a self-regulating ecosystems within larger ecosystems) seven+ billion humans living low impact. No one type of person is giving to blaming, judging or hoarding than any other type; it mostly depends on your fear of/experience of scarcity. Capitalism and its reliance upon infinite growth is the problem, not population.
The underpinning solution? Positive monetary systems allow all participants to transact with conscience, allowing us to change the character and trajectory of global economics.
5Dave Darby August 18th, 2019
Yes – we’d be able to feed a lot more people if we reversed the ‘(not at all) green’ revolution, and moved back to small farms and away from industrial ag, which not only feeds fewer people per hectare farmed, but destroys soil in the process.
That’s what the Ecological Land Co-op is trying to do, and what the One Planet Development policy in Wales is intended to assist.
Eloise – Chris became a director of the ELC as I left, and he’s got a book coming out soon (ish) – so look out for it.